What’s Worth Watching: Airing a Town’s Dirty Laundry in Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy
Steffan Hill/HBO
The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy, Wednesday-Thursday, April 29 and 30, 8/7c, HBO

Like a British Peyton Place, the seemingly bucolic English village of Pagford harbors no end of sordid personal skeletons just waiting to be exposed. In the tragicomic BBC/HBO adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, (airing three hours over two nights), the catalyst for scandal is a dispute over the future of Sweetlove House, a community center serving Pagford’s neediest. Class divisions erupt when the town’s upper crust (embodied by the terrifically loathsome Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie) suggests turning the building into a tourist spa. Leading the opposition, urging idealism over opportunism: an earnest councilman (Penny Dreadful‘s poignant Rory Kinnear) whose sudden death opens up a tie-breaking seat on the council board.

The ensuing election turns nasty and personal when various residents’ darkest and most shameful secrets are mockingly leaked online. The pungent satire is none too subtle, but the performances are superb, including from Keeley Hawes, Simon McBurney, and newcomer Abigail Lawrie as Krystal, the scrappy daughter of a drug addict whose turbulent life underscores the need for a social safety net.